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Rural schools still facing ed-tech challenges

Rural students often lack access to high-speed internet.

Educational technology stakeholders tout the benefits of mobile devices, broadband internet, and technology in the classroom—but in some rural schools, even the most basic ed-tech access is still a pipe dream. However, digital tools and persistence on the part of school leaders can help rural students achieve the same “connectedness” found in more populated parts of the nation.

Statistics indicate that rural high school students are less likely to complete advanced math courses and are less likely have access to Advanced Placement courses. Many have never visited a college campus or talked with a guidance counselor about attending college, according to Terri Dugan Schwartzbeck, a senior policy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education, during a webinar focusing on educational technology opportunities for rural schools.

Often, there exists a “disconnect between these students’ aspirations and the resources available to them to reach these goals,” she said.

Many stakeholder groups maintain that today’s high school students need to hone problem-solving and critical thinking skills to stand out in college and the workforce. Hands-on learning opportunities and connecting with adults to learn about real applications of classroom lessons are not always readily available to rural students.

Digital and technology-rich opportunities—including AP courses, virtual field trips, virtual conversations with experts, and expanded professional development—have so much potential for students and teachers in rural areas.

But successfully integrating technology into effective instruction is hard work, Schwartzbeck said. During the webinar, a panel of experts shared their tips, challenges, and successes when it comes to making sure rural students have the same ed-tech opportunities as suburban and urban students.

“We know we are facing the challenge of how we connect our kids,” said Pamela Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia. ACPS covers 726 square miles and includes an urban area—with challenges stemming from high poverty and English language learners—right outside of Charlottesville, a suburban middle-class population, and then a very rural population bordered by mountains and, at times, quite isolated. The district’s school buses travel 12,000 miles a day shuttling students among its 26 schools.

“We really serve students who represent every demographic,” Moran said. “That’s a challenge for us, but it also allows us to be a test bed.”

First steps to connectedness

School leaders must have a vision of what learning, teaching, and schooling could be and should be, said Scott McLeod, director of innovation at Prairie Lakes AEA 8 in Iowa. While working with Prairie Lakes, McLeod is on a one-year leave of absence from the University of Kentucky, where he worked with CASTLE, a University Council for Educational Administration center that focuses on school administrators’ technology needs.

“We want our principals, superintendents, and policy makers to have deep, rich visions of what technology can look like, and a deeper understanding of how to make that happen—many of them don’t. The first challenge is how we address leaders’ learning needs,” he said.

The first step in addressing that challenge lies in connecting school leaders with others around the country who are a bit further into their educational technology journey. Once those connections happen, face-to-face meetings and training occurs, leaders begin to formulate ideas, and then they begin to reallocate internal resources toward changing teaching and learning within their schools and districts, McLeod said.

Moran said she and her staff are working to identify how digital strategies can help ACPS students stay connected to the best resources, experts, and opportunities.

“Being connected has become the mantra of the 21st century,” she said. Moran’s involvement and engagement in social media has linked her to other school leaders facing the same challenges, and has allowed her to learn about different steps those leaders are taking to form a connected generation of young people.

Moran likened her involvement in digital technologies to NASA’s space program and said that her district’s goal is to forge a deep level of learning and understanding that takes them beyond outdated strategies that tend to stagnate schools.

The digital divide is still very much a challenge in ACPS, and Moran said that as teachers begin to assign projects that require students to access devices and resources, and work together using tools such as Google Docs, some students find that they are living in a world of “haves” and “have-nots.”

“That really worries me, because I think it’s going to accentuate over the next few years as we see more and more of a flip towards the use of more of a web-based learning environment for students,” Moran said.

All ACPS schools have wireless internet access, “but once you get outside of that school sphere, it’s dead,” Moran said. Working with AT&T, district leaders placed two cell phone towers in the district’s most rural area, which enabled the district to expand internet access not just to teachers and students, but to the entire community.

When a rental agreement expired, the district regained control of educational broadband spectrum and is exploring partnerships to help spread access across the entire county. That initiative, which has been presented to the Federal Communications Commission, is currently in field testing.

“It’s important enough that it’s not just about schools and families; it’s about our kids being able to connect with a bigger community—that’s the next step,” Moran said.

Vince Scheivert, CIO for ACPS, said the district looks at funding in terms of what is in the best interest of students.

“Time is the most important commodity kids have, and we can’t really wait any longer to provide them these services,” he said.

The district examines its top priorities and takes sustainability into account when making spending decisions, ensuring that devices and services will fit within an operational framework.

“Broadband is key” in making sure that rural students have access to devices, said Chip Slaven, senior advocacy associate at AEE, speaking about the McDowell Project. The McDowell Project is an initiative to help reinvigorate and sustain a remote, rural West Virginia county that has been in decline. The county, which once had close to 100,000 residents during coal mining’s boom, now has about 22,000 citizens and ranks at the bottom of all West Virginia counties in terms of education, health, and income.

“One of the goals is high-speed broadband in all of the schools,” Slaven said. The initiative aims to connect 10,000 homes to fiber optics. Students who take online courses at school often say that their connections are slow and inhibit studying, and many students do not even have home internet access.

“The really important thing is the role that digital learning and technology can play in the schools there,” Slaven said.

Grants and fundraising are helping to build new homes to attract teachers, fund online learning projects and increase at-home internet access, boost medical services, and more.

Open educational resources

Open educational resources also hold potential for giving rural students free or low-cost access to educational content, but “we face a number of challenges with OERs,” McLeod said. “The biggest problem is curating good content into ways that work for teachers and students. There is a wealth of information, and lots of people are creating good resources. [Challenges lie in] organizing and coalescing things into meaningful collections that are of use to us.”

McLeod noted that most OER collections have so far been ad-hoc, with individual teachers organizing materials into small collections using social bookmarking tools and wikis. National attempts to do this, such as Curriki, are largely based on volunteers.

What is needed, he said, is an intentional, focused effort to compensate educators as they create a set of resources around topics or subject areas. For instance, a national science group might gather a group of high-level chemistry teachers, focusing on one topic, and ask them to find and create a collection of free and open resources, unit by unit, that might accompany a typical chemistry textbook. Those educators would work over the summer, so that the resource collection is available come fall.

“If we’re going to do what we’ve always done, we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten,” Scheivert said.

“We’re always trying to make sure the digital content doesn’t look like 20th-century print that kids could get by going to the library,” Moran said. “If you’re not integrating contemporary technology, interpreting content through contemporary lenses, and looking at pedagogy, you’re probably not doing 21st-century learning with your kids.”

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